Do you have body dysmorphism

When the mirror becomes the enemy

She hates the cold, but she loves winter. Because only during this time of year can the young woman go out into the street with a woolen hat pulled down over her forehead and a scarf hanging wide over her face. She then hides her body in a coat that is much too big. Nobody should see how ugly it is. The 29-year-old, seen unveiled in the light, tends to meet the criteria of standard beauty.

In a bistro in Berlin-Charlottenburg, she spoke to a representative of the press for the first time, i.e. publicly, about her illness at the beginning of November. Given her shame, it is hardly surprising that her real name is not allowed to appear in the newspaper. What name would you like to have in the text? She doesn't have to think long: “Seyma!” A friend told her that it was Arabic and meant “hidden beauty”. She, who from now on would like to be called Seyma, laughs at this irony - and reveals rows of teeth that those to whom such evaluations seem significant would describe as flawless.

Her psychologist suspected two years ago that Seyma had body dysmorphic disorder, also known as dysmorphophobia. Anyone with this clinical picture perceives their appearance as disgusting and unreasonable for other people for no immediately recognizable reason. Seyma fits into this pattern, but at first she assessed her situation differently: "I reacted with a huff and replied: I'm not crazy, I'm simply deadly unhappy with the way I look, and everyone can see why that is the case."

Every time has its objective ideals of beauty. However, there are two universally valid categories across all epochs and cultures: symmetry and proportion. People who have a symmetrical face and whose body weight is evenly distributed in the "right" places are considered beautiful. From the Middle Ages to the late 19th century, however, this type of beauty was only relevant if it expressed the "correct" social origin and the "correct" moral character. Pale skin was also particularly attractive because it indicated that someone came from a "good home" and did not have to physically plow in the scorching sun to survive.

Today that has shifted. Not only that society has become much more permeable and the choice of partner has become freer. Anyone who appears tanned in northern and central Europe subconsciously suggests that they are a good match because it signals health and because he or she can afford a vacation in the sun. In the meantime, a lot of people allow themselves such a trip to the south, which is why new demarcation strategies have emerged. Perfumes, make-up and creams did not conquer the mass consumer market in this country by chance in the midst of the economic prosperity after the Second World War.

The sociologist Eva Illouz put it in her book “Why love hurts” as follows: “Turned into a target of industry, the body was aestheticized, a process that was accelerated by the fact that the cosmetics industry across all social classes with fashion - and the film industry worked together. «In particular, television, advertising and social media convey the message that primarily objectively beautiful people can lead a good - that is, a successful - life.

When Seyma began to take her psychologist's suspicions seriously, she was just in an unsuccessful phase. After completing her pedagogy studies, she was dependent on unemployment benefit II for some time. It just didn’t work out when I started my career. Most of the time, despite her A diploma and formally suitable positions, she did not even manage to be invited to an interview. “After six months,” says Seyma, “I was put in charge of a new clerk. And he demanded that I show him every application. "

He noticed one thing straight away: she had never sent a photo of herself. Although it is forbidden by law to ask applicants for a passport photo as a company, most HR managers sort out almost every entry that does not contain one. That should have been known to the job center employee. Therefore Seyma should only apply with a photo from now on. Otherwise, since he did not allow any compromises, he would cut her pay. For Seyma that was "the absolute horror". This is exactly why this bureaucratic repression helped her: she finally had to deal with why she is so afraid of herself.

The waitress comes to the table. Seyma holds the menu in front of her face so that only her eyes can be seen. She orders a salad without dressing, hands in the menu, then laughs again, this time it seems embarrassed: “Now I am fulfilling a cliché, but I really don't have an eating disorder. Actually, I don't think I'm too fat. For example, she has problems with my eyes that are too narrow. That's terrible, and nothing can be saved with make-up. ”Otherwise, there are her greasy legs, misshapen chest, protruding ears, hair on her face and too big hands.

Seyma runs her right index finger over the bridge of her nose, so slowly that the bump, which is barely visible to the naked eye, is barely noticeable. This part of the body is the main source of her grief: "The hook drives me to despair." Shortly after the awakening experience at the job center, a friend arranged an appointment for her with a specialist in psychiatry, who confirmed the psychologist's suspicions. Seyma underwent inpatient treatment at the Schön Clinic for Psychosomatic Diseases in Bad Bramstedt near Hamburg. She now knows that her self-perception is distorted: "I have dysmo and I still don't find anything beautiful about myself."

In the online forum "Dysmorphophobie.de" she looked for fellow sufferers - it is a disease that predominantly affects women. Seyma is still active there, even if they often drag down the stories of the other affected persons even further. Far too often it is all about fighting the symptoms: Which make-up covers my pimples? Is there any chance that health insurance will pay for liposuction? Does my face look slimmer when I have my wisdom teeth pulled?

So she was left alone with her worries. Two relationships lasting several months failed because it was all about Seyma's appearance. The men wanted to introduce her to her circle of friends, but she encapsulated herself in her apartment. She did not enjoy sex. She only endured tenderness when it was pitch dark in the room. Her last friend so far fled after Seyma kept asking him if he thought she was pretty. She later found a job that she likes. She works as a supervisor in a workshop for the disabled. "The people there don't pay attention to my appearance," says Seyma. “You don't care how I look. They are only interested in character. "

According to her own perception, she does this job well, but she has been close to burnout several times. Over-identification with the task? Unlike Dysmo, Seyma can easily talk about burnout. This mental illness, nothing more than a special form of depression, is much less stigmatized by society. In the vast majority of cases, burnout can be traced back to being too willing to perform at work. So it is the result of socially desirable behavior.

Dysmo, on the other hand, is based on supposed inadequacies and creates suffering because the sick cannot withstand the constantly noticeable pressure to optimize their own body on their own. Once, Seyma recalls, she tried to attach the ears with industrial glue. As a student, she worked for years as a temporary worker in a large pharmacy, although she got by with her parents' monthly money.

She secretly saved up for several cosmetic surgeries and sometimes stole prescription drugs. “In the final stages of my studies, I couldn't even look in the mirror anymore. In the morning I turned off the light in the bathroom, later I dismantled all the mirrors in my apartment. «Before Seyma had enough money, she had to apply for Hartz IV, and before she could get help from the office, she had to use up all the savings. This is what the rules of the authoritarian welfare state want.

In Germany, the number of so-called cosmetic operations has risen to more than a million annually. Ten percent of those who have been operated on are younger than 20 years old. 80 percent of those who have been operated on are women who spend an average of 2,000 euros on an operation. One in five of the nine to fourteen-year-olds would like to have a cosmetic operation that is supposed to remove features that have been interpreted as ugly.

Current estimates suggest that up to five percent of all teenagers and young adults have clear symptoms of body dysmorphic disorder. These include: compulsive checking of one's own appearance, incessant comparisons with the appearance of other people, hiding and concealing body parts behind clothing or make-up, frequent preoccupation with surgical or drug changes and, in the worst case, thoughts of suicide.

For years, studies have been diagnosing that the pressure to conform to a beauty norm is increasing in the western world. The health scientist Friedrich Schorb connects in his book “Dick, stupid and poor? The big lie about being overweight and who benefits from it «this pressure to conform with the development towards a new health standard. She, according to Schorb, "obliges us to behave like model athletes under threat of economic collapse."

Politicians privatize life risks under the label of personal responsibility, so that poverty and disease are interpreted as self-inflicted. In this social climate, one conclusion is obvious: Those who find their own body repulsive are first to blame themselves.

Seyma digs her cell phone out of her pocket, swipes it a few times, then presents a photo. You can see a Barbie doll that has wider hips than the models in the collective memory. "That's the curvy Barbie," says Seyma. In a therapy session, her psychologist reported about it and presented the toy, which has been available for two years, as an example that there is hope that beauty standards may soon change again.

Seyma did not find that convincing. The new Barbie has all the characteristics that one knows: blonde and straight hair, a sweet snub nose, extensively painted eyes, pink make-up and full lips, thin arms, delicate hands, fashionable clothes and a smart lady handbag. The psychologist was enthusiastic about this answer, reports Seyma: "She thought I was on the right track, if I judge the matter that way." An important part of the therapy is to be able to describe externals again at some point without any judgment. It was also her psychologist who encouraged her to comply with a journalist's request for an interview.

Seyma will soon be going to the clinic near Hamburg again for a few weeks. Then she wants to finally get the body dysmorphic disorder under control, so that the relapses that have been breaking in recently may come to an end. Seyma looks at her watch and orders the bill. You have to go now. She had an appointment to go shopping with a friend. Also a recommendation from your psychologist for exposure therapy? "No," says Seyma. “At the moment I'm better than I have been in a long time. I have to use the momentum before the next low point comes and I don't even have enough clothes for the winter. "

nd journalism from the left thrives on the commitment of its readers

In view of the experience of the corona pandemic, we have decided to make our journalism permanently freely accessible on our website and thus make it available to everyone who is interested.

As with our print and epaper editions, our work as an author, editor, technician or publishing employee is part of every published article. It is what makes this journalism possible.

Volunteer now with just a few clicks!